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Is South Korea’s President Yoon Really ‘Tough on China’?

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The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Is South Korea’s President Yoon Really ‘Tough on China’?

Despite President Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign promises, his actions show that South Korea’s foreign policy still operates within Chinese constraints.

Is South Korea’s President Yoon Really ‘Tough on China’?

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin (left) shakes hands with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a trip to Qingdao, China, Aug. 9, 2022.

Credit: Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The election of President Yoon Suk-yeol raised expectations among Korea watchers and policymakers in Washington about the future of South Korea-U.S. relations. Such predictions raised prospects that Yoon would “more actively support President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and “take a less deferential policy stance towards Beijing.”

During his campaign, Yoon emphasized the need for strategic clarity in South Korea’s foreign policy, which aimed to clearly demarcate South Korea as a U.S. ally while not allowing Chinese pressure to limit the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Thus, Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit in July seemed to indicate that Yoon was fulfilling his promises and widespread expectations for South Korean strategic clarity were coming to fruition. Many viewed this summit as a pivotal moment where South Korea’s foreign policy objectives would further align with those of the United States and other NATO member countries.

However, the outcome of the summit demonstrated that South Korea’s foreign policy remains not just wary of China but actively constrained by Beijing. Both Yoon’s rhetoric and policy agreements operated within the bounds of what is acceptable to China.

During the summit, South Korea’s partnership with NATO was noticeably held back in two ways: limited Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral cooperation, and Yoon’s vague rhetoric, which avoided mentioning China by name. Yoon had the opportunity to extend his foreign policy to align with the United States and move toward strategic clarity. Instead, the limited progress should lead experts to reexamine what strategic clarity means for the Yoon administration and the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

As Yoon’s campaign vowed to improve relations with Japan, developments in Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral cooperation were viewed as strong evidence of how the NATO summit aligned South Korea’s policy with those of its Western partners. Repairing Japan-South Korea relations would allow the United States to work collectively with its two closest partners on Indo-Pacific security issues and pivot the South Korean government towards the China challenge.

Specifically, the decision to resume trilateral military exercises could be interpreted as Yoon’s rejection of the Moon administration’s “three noes.” This was a list of promises made to assuage China after the THAAD deployments, which included a pledge that South Korea would not pursue a formal trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. The move toward trilateral defense cooperation makes it appear as if Yoon is indeed willing to strengthen partnerships without making concessions to China.

However, the resumption of trilateral military exercises is the continuation of pre-existing policy rather than a marked change that redefined the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Before they were canceled in 2017 by the Moon administration, military exercises were a core part of trilateral cooperation. Cooperation continues to focus on the North Korean nuclear threat as it has before, with no mention of China in the trilateral statement. In fact, this is a step back from the mention of the Taiwan Strait as a key security area during the June 11 Trilateral Defense Minister’s meeting. Continuing this point at the NATO summit would have expanded the scope of shared security issues to include China.

With the U.S. and Japanese attention directed squarely at China, the NATO summit seemed to be the appropriate forum for South Korea to acknowledge China as a shared security challenge. The continuation of previous policy and lack of consensus on China may be expected as it is early in the Yoon administration, but they should remind the new administration and Korea watchers of the difficulty of pursuing strategic clarity.

The way China constrains South Korean policy is nuanced but can be extrapolated from the two countries’ bilateral discussions. South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin traveled to China from August 8 to 10 – notably, while China was holding live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, which have been harshly criticized by the U.S. and its allies Japan and Australia. Park made no mention of China’s military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has not issued a formal statement on the Taiwan Strait situation.

During Park’s discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, both affirmed the importance of bilateral cooperation. Park noted the important role China played in North Korean policy and peace on the peninsula. He also suggested “consultations” on ways to “promote communication and cooperation at regional and global levels.” The general remarks can be read as diplomatic gestures but are also a sign of continuing strategic ambiguity.

Without a detailed understanding of what “mutual trust” and “mutually beneficial cooperation” means in the China-South Korea relationship, the new administration’s hawkish position becomes muddled while Seoul fails to clearly delineate what future bilateral cooperation could look like. Furthermore, the remarks that China is an important part of North Korea issues – especially right after the NATO summit – should raise questions of whether Seoul was attempting to assure China that Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit was not targeting China.

From calling the United States the “only ally” to even saying that “the majority of South Koreans, especially young people, don’t like China,” Yoon appeared determined in his support for strategic clarity on the campaign trail. However, his rhetoric during the NATO summit was much tamer, which did not go unnoticed by observers. His speech at the summit mentioned the challenge of a “new structure of competitions and conflicts” and threats to “universal values.” The omission of China as the party responsible for those threats is significant when compared to U.S. and NATO positions. For the first time, the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept identified China as a core challenge to its “interests, security and values.” Again, Yoon intentionally stayed away from pointing out China by name – in contrast to Australia and Japan – and aligned his goals with the United States.

Given the initial excitement over a conservative, tough-on-China president, progress has been much slower and more passive than many would have expected. As Yoon’s actions are less robust compared to his campaign promises, Washington and Korea watchers should consider the constraints that limit South Korea’s move toward strategic clarity.